I was watching a recent episode of the Colbert Report, and Alan Alda was the guest. I have been an Alan Alda fan since he was on the TV version of M*A*S*H as Hawkeye. Well, apparently Alan Alda not only played a questionable role model physician, but he is also really into science. He explained his idea, the Flame Challenge:
As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that non-answer answer was.
So when he was invited to contribute a guest editorial to the journal Science, he wrote about why we need scientists to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. And he issued the Flame Challenge: I’d like to try a playful experiment. Would you be willing to have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is—one that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun? The Center for Communicating Science is looking for new ways to light up people’s minds with science, and you might point the way. We’ll try out the entries on real 11-year-olds and see which work best. . . .
So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity. What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?
I remember asking a science teacher to explain a flame to me when I was in junior high (that’s what we used to call middle school, kiddies), too! I was also disappointed in the answer I received: “It’s a chemical reaction.” Yeah, OK, but what IS it? Solid? Liquid? Gas?
The winner is a candidate for a Ph.D. in quantum physics who lives in Austria, but is from the United States. His name is Bill Ames. Here is his winning entry. His entry was chosen by eleven year olds.
There is more background information, and an adorable picture of Bill Ames and his daughter here.